Mental illness affects nearly all people at some point or another in their life. This can be directly or indirectly through the suffering of a family member or close friend. Mental illness is the broad umbrella term we give to disorders that affect mental well-being. One of the most common forms of mental illness is depression with more than 10% of adults in the US reporting feeling depressed at some point in their life. Depression affects every aspect of your life including your relationships, your diet and health, and your work. At times in certain people it can become severe enough to require medical interventions and therapy. This is termed clinical or severe depression. Unfortunately, some people who suffer from severe depression will ultimately commit suicide as a way out of the pain. There is research to show that our current mode of treatment is inadequate at helping people with depression and that more research and new treatments are needed to help combat this growing problem.
New research out of Toronto shows promise at getting to the root cause of severe depression and perhaps in the future, more adequate treatments. The researchers looked at PET (positron emission tomography) scans from 20 patients with major depressive disorder and compared them to scans from 20 healthy controls. The researchers were looking for the elevation of a protein that is a marker of inflammation called TSPO (translocator protein) in the brains of the subjects. They saw that TSPO was elevated in the three brain regions they examined in patients with major depressive disorder. These three regions were the prefrontal cortex, involved in decision making and planning, anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), involved in empathy and emotion, and the insula, involved in self-awareness and emotion. In particular, the researchers saw that increased protein in the ACC was associated with a greater severity of depression indicating that perhaps this information could be used in a diagnosis of severe depression in the future.
Inflammation is the body’s way of fighting off infection, getting rid of damaged cells and to initiate the repair process. This involves the immune system and white blood cells, however in the brain, specialized cells called microglia perform this task. Inflammation is normally protective and good but when it is allowed to continue without proper control then it can cause problems. Many diseases we suffer from in the modern world can be attributed to uncontrolled inflammation. In this research paper, the researchers think that the microglia are over active for some reason and this is the cause of severe depression. The microglia could be causing damage to the neurons in these brain regions resulting in altered function.
There are many different type of depression. Post partum, seasonal, bipolar, and major depression. Regardless of the form, these results may help find a key to treating mental illness effectively. There is much more research to do including determining if this inflammation is only present in people with severe depression or if the inflammation is present in all people suffering from depression. We also need to understand why this inflammation is occurring and if we can use it as a predictor of severe depression in people. It would also be important to know if other markers of inflammation can be detected in sufferers of depression. Perhaps with research like this and campaigns raising awareness for mental illness we can begin to eliminate depression or at least the stigma attached to it. This research helps show the depression is not a sign of weakness, but an illness that needs treatment.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression talk to your health care provider, there is help available. You don’t need to suffer.